Museums and Gardens and Heirs, Oh My!
I must apologise for this pun. Not only because it’s terrible, but because Kensington is one of the only places in London you can actually see Lions and Tigers and Bears. Sorry! This area is an absolute must for any first time visitors to London. When I recently nipped into the city for an event, I had some time to spare. I managed to fill this with a flying visit to most of the popular attractions here. However I could easily spend a full day or two in the area if I took my time. It’s safe to say that there is no shortage of attractions in Kensington.
One of the best things about Kensington is that the area provides an excellent cross section through British history from prehistoric times to the present day. Where else in the world can you take a short walk between a Tyranosaurus Rex and a memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales? As a result, Kensington has an eclectic mix of attractions where there is something to please most visitors.
And better still, many of the attractions in Kensington are completely free. This makes Kensington perfect for every traveller, even if you’re on a budget.
Where is Kensington
Kensington is one of London’s most affluent and fashionable neighbourhoods, close to Knightsbridge and Chelsea in the west of London. Here the hustle and bustle of London life is quieter. The houses get bigger and the shops get expensive. That being said, you can alway expect a warm welcome here.
There are many ways to get to Kensington. I started my day at South Kensington Tube station and worked my way northwards. Another option would be getting off the Tube at Kensington High Street.
Attractions in Kensington
There’s a vibrant little neighbourhood in the streets surrounding South Kensington tube station. It’s a popular meeting place for locals. It’s also a great place to grab a drink or a bite to eat as there are plenty of restaurants here. In the summer these restaurants spill onto the streets and are great place for dining alfresco and socialising.
I’d recommend Brindisa, a small London based restaurant chain, for award winning Spanish food and Tapas.
Heading north from South Kensington, you will soon reach three of the UK’s largest and most popular museum buildings. They are hard to miss and are one of the reasons why South Kensington is so popular. And better yet, all three of these museums are completely free to visit. Plus you could easily spend hours in each of the museums.
The Natural History Museum
With over 5 millions visitors per year, the Natural History Museum is one of London’s most visited attractions. And for good reason. The museum has both scientific and historic significance. The former from the 80 million specimens stored by the museum. The latter due to the famous names of scientists who worked on these specimens. Many of the samples from the collection previously belonged to Charles Darwin. As a reminder of this, a statue of Charles Darwin looks proudly over the central hall, watching the arriving visitors.
I’m always amused when I see Charles Darwin sat in the museum. The Natural History Museum was more closely associated with Sir Richard Owen who created the word, dinosaur. Sir Richard was a rival to Charles Darwin and was a critic of his theory of evolution. I wonder how Sir Richard would feel about there being tribute to Charles Darwin in his museum.
The museum’s specimens are diverse and pretty impressive.
A large chunk of the museum has been given over to animal specimens. These sections are a little like a dead zoo or a taxidermy convention. Some of these specimens are rare or completely extinct. Other species on display can only otherwise be seen in the wild.
Of course most of these specimens are historic. Today specimens aren’t collected like they were during the Victorian era. This would be unethical, not to mention illegal.
But the legacy of this is that we get to see some amazing animal specimens here. We can also use this legacy to raise awareness and to hopefully protect the animal species we still have. I’d much rather see an aged taxidermy specimen of an animal than see a living version being held in captivity.
And I’d know much less about pangolins if I hadn’t seen one in this museum.
The architecture of the Natural History Museum is pretty spectacular too, especially the central hall at the main entrance. Just entering this room transports you back to Victorian times with its Gothic design and echoing balconies. This is what I imagine Hogwarts would look like with twisting Gothic staircases reaching ever upwards.
The central hall is home to Hope, the skeleton of massive blue whale which is suspended from the ceiling. Dippy the dinosaur previously lived in this space but was replaced by a non-extinct species. This encourages visitors to think more about preserving life for the future. I was a huge Dippy fan, but Hope is equally gracious and a worthy of a place in the hall. It’s a poignant reminder of our need to protect this amazing species.
Take sometime to wander around the staircases in the central hall before entering the wings of the museum. There are some fascinating views here. Look out for the monkeys carved into the supporting pillars as well as some of the exhibits along the balconies.
It’s easy to spend a few hours here browsing the various wings available to the public. Many of the features are interactive which makes the museum particularly popular with families and school groups.
Make some timee to see the dinosaur section. This includes a roaring replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex plus lots of other dinosaur skeletons. The Earth Galleries are also very interesting especially the sections on earthquakes and volcanoes. Make sure you enter via the official entrance where an escalator takes you beneath the earth’s crust. There’s also a machine which recreates the sensations of an earthquake in a Japanese supermarket.
I last visited the museum on a sunny Sunday in July. If I’m being honest, it felt like the museum’s 5 million visitors had arrived on the same day. It was hard to move and I kept getting stuck in the middle of a group of Italian school children.
This was not to my liking at all. I quickly took my pictures and moved on. If crowds aren’t your bag either, you’d be safer visiting the Natural History Museums in the Autumn/Winter months. I had a much nicer experience when I visited in November. I had the time and space to browse the exhibits with fewer interruptions from other visitors.
The Science Museum
The second large museum on this strip is the Science Museum which is a little smaller than its neighbours but still has plenty to see.
Here to you can see varied scientific exhibits including the Apollo 10 Command Module, which has orbited the moon, and the world oldest surviving steam engine built by Robert Stevenson and known as Puffing Billy.
Similar to the Natural History Museum, the science museum is packed with interactive features which are perfect for families or for anyone wanting to unleash their inner child.
You can probably tell from my relative lack of content that I find the Science Museum to be less entertaining than the other two museums. Please don’t let that dissuade you, this is just my personal preference.
Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert museum sits immediately across the road from the Natural History Museum. This museum is home to art, design and antiquities from across the globe, some of which are over 5000 years old.
If the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum are places to unleash your inner child, the Victoria and Albert museum is a place for adulting and appreciating fine design. The museum attracts a quieter, more mature audience than the other museums on this strip and can offer a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the busier museums. Here you will have the time and space to appreciate the artifacts without being followed by troops of touring school kids. That’s not to say that this museum is less interesting, far from it! It attracts over 3 million visitors every year.
There’s a lot to see here and again you could spent the best part of a day browsing the various exhibits. The architecture alone is worth visiting for, particularly the sections in and around the entrance foyer and the room hosting the Raphael Cartoons. The building design is a hybrid between Classical, Gothic and Romanesque architectural styles, some of which has been constructed in white marble. Expect spacious white rooms with sleek and elegant displays.
My favourite section of the V&A museum is the Cast Courts. In here you will find hundreds of towering plaster casts of sculptures from across the globe. The biggest of these plaster casts is the replica of Trajan’s column in Rome, Italy. This has to be displayed in two parts as the column was too tall to fit in the building. The picture below gives you an understanding of the scale of exhibits in this space.
When visiting the Cast Courts, make sure that you visit both levels. On the Ground floor you can wander around the smaller exhibits, however the larger casts are best appreciated from the balcony area.
The Royal Albert Hall
North of the museums, I found the Royal Albert Hall, one of the UK’s most iconic music venues, home to the annual proms and, of course, the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest.
It’s no coincidence that the Museums and the Royal Albert Hall are sat so close together. Inspired by the Great Exhibition, these attractions were built in close proximity to create a hub of attractions for education and enlightenment in Kensington. The name of this area was be called Albertopolis. Unfortunately this name didn’t stick.
To find out more about the Royal Albert Hall, the Prince Albert Memorial, see my other post: Visit the Royal Albert Hall.
Kensington Gardens are essentially part of Hyde Park which is the largest green space in central London. The western end of Hyde Park became Kensington Gardens in 1728 when Queen Caroline fenced off this section to create a private garden for the Royal Family. There’s now very little to distinguish this section from the remainder of Hyde Park as the gardens are open to the public.
There’s a lot to see in Kensington Gardens. A stroll around the various attractions could take up the best part of an afternoon if you have enough time.
You’ll find plenty of locals here. Runners and dog walkers visit the park throughout the year. However the park really comes to life in the summer when Londoners flock here for picnics and sunbathing. If you’re lucky you can also spot some wildlife while you’re here including ducks, swans, herons and squirrels.
The Royal Albert Memorial
After the death of Prince Albert in 1861 and before the Royal Albert Hall was opened, a towering gothic memorial to the Prince Consort was built at the edge of Kensington Gardens. It sits opposite the Royal Albert Hall.
See my post on the Royal Albert Hall for more information on the Prince Albert Memorial.
Kensington Palace is at the westernmost edge of Kensington Gardens. The palace has long royal history. Members of the royal family have lived here from the 1600’s to the present day. The building is currently the official London residence for a number of royals, most notably the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. It has previously been home to Queen Victoria and Diana, Princess of Wales.
A statue of a young Queen Victoria looks proudly from the palace into Kensington Gardens. This marble effigy as created by Victoria’s daughter for her Golden Jubilee in 1893.
You can find out more about Kensington Palace including visitor information here.
Peter Pan Statue
Close by the Long Water, I found the Peter Pan statue. Peter Pan has a number of connections with Kensington Gardens which explains why the statues can be found here. Firstly, JM Barrie, the author, of Peter Pan, lived on Bayswater Road which marks the northern perimeter of Hyde Park. He therefore had easy access to the Gardens and spent time here.
Secondly, Kensington Gardens were said to have inspired the mystical world of Peter Pan and featured within JM Barrie’s novels. The statue sits where Peter Pan landed after flying from the nursery in the book ‘The Little White Bird’.
My favourite story linked to this statue is that it was commisioned by JM Barrie and placed here without permission from the authorities. The author wanted it to appear as though the statue has magically appeared here overnight. With this in mind, he didn’t seek the necessary permission to erect the statue. Instead he paid for a notice in The Times telling children where to find the monument. Thankfully the statue was kept, installed officially and survives to this day.
For extra splash of magic, visit the Eflin Oak in the north-west corner of the park.
Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain
I really enjoyed visiting this attraction. Although fountain probably isn’t the word I’d use to describe this. That’s being said, it’s a very fitting tribute and memorial to the life of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Why wouldn’t I call this a fountain? The word fountain makes me think of tall structures with water jets. This is more subtle than that. In fact most of the fountain flows along the ground like a beautiful and snake like water feature. Made from granite, the water bubbles up gently and flows down a shallow incline towards a pool at the other end.
How the water flows depends on which side of the fountain you are on. One side runs smoothly. On the other side the water takes a more turbulent path towards it’s final destination. These different streams were designed to reflect the two side to Diana’s fascinating life and it does this very well.
One of the best things about the fountain is that you can paddle here. In fact when I visited the fountain was filled with children playing in the flowing waters. Again, this felt like a fitting tribute to someone who had done so much to support children and young people.
You can spend time her for a paddle. Alternatively, the gentle trickling sounds here are very relaxing and it’s a great place for quiet contemplation.
The Serpentine Galleries / Serpentine Sackler Galleries
To add a splash of contemporary culture to your visit to Kensington Gardens, plan a visit to the Serpentine Gallery and the Serpentine Sackler Gallery.
One thing I love about the galleries is that they are in historic buildings which have been re-purposed. The Serpentine Gallery was formerly a tea room and the Serpentine Sackler was a gunpowder store. And it’s easy to guess their former lives from the design of the buildings. The Serpentine has lots of windows and veranda areas where you can easily imagine Victorian ladies sipping cups of tea. The Serpentine Sackler gallery has no windows and is much more functional as a building as well as a fence to keep the public out.
I won’t pretend to know a great deal about modern art…because I really don’t. But as a casual observer of modern art, I enjoyed visiting the galleries. They are spacious and airy which was a welcome break from the summer heat whilst the art was colorful and thought provoking.
Your Guide to Attractions in Kensington
I hope you enjoyed finding out more about Kensington and the amazing attractions available here. Have I missed something? Send me an email and let me know what it is. I’ll do my best to visit when I’m next in the area.
If you really loved this post, or even if you just loved it a little bit, please give me a share, a like or a follow on the usual channels below.
If you liked this post, you’ll probably enjoy some of my other posts. I’ve hand picked these ones for you. Let me know what you think.
- A Walk in Windsor – Self Guided Walking Tour
- Discover History at Hampton Court Palace
- Lodges in Kielder Forest, Northumberland
- What Does Socially Distanced Theatre Look Like?